Keren David blogged about breakthrough books - the titles that grab a child's imagination so that they really want to read and their reading takes off. That's a wonderful moment - but it doesn't always happen. For some children, the magic of reading doesn't manifest itself at 5 or 6 or 7 - or at all. Maybe the child is never introduced to a book that really speaks to them; maybe they live in a home without books and have over-stressed teachers who don't find the right book for them. Maybe they have a physical problem that makes reading or holding a book difficult, or a learning difficulty that means there are huge barriers to reading and engaging imaginatively. Or maybe English is not the language they speak at home and so reading it is too much of a struggle for the wonder to break through.
Whatever the reason, there are children who are left out of the party, who can't read or don't see the point of reading, who struggle or avoid reading (even coming up with ornate strategies to avoid admitting they can't read). By the age of 9 or 10 they are labelled non-readers, or reluctant readers or struggling readers. And soon they are left behind, with the rest of their world whizzing off ahead at secondary schools where reading is taken for granted and essential - no GCSEs if you can't read, no matter how good at science or maths or history you may be. They're soon written off, and many slip into misbehaving and become totally disengaged unless someone can get them reading. And that's where we come in. No one else can do it. Teachers and librarians are essential, of course, but if there are not books for these children, no amount of encouragement and expertise will get them to make the leap into reading for pleasure.
A child of 9, 10, 11 or even 15 or 16 who can't read won't be inspired to read by books intended for five-year-olds. Imagine you had a child of 12 months who had an accident or physical disability that meant they didn't learn to walk at the 'right' time. When he or she was better at the age of three, you wouldn't put them in shoes that fit a one-year-old and expect them to walk in those. So why do the same with books? Children need books appropriate to the interests and experiences of their chronological (or emotional) age, no matter what their reading age. A child of 13 who struggles with reading won't be inspired by a story about a panda who doesn't like a new sibling, or a little bunny whose parent loves him THIS much. They'll feel patronised, insulted, disengaged, alienated - and their belief that reading is not for them will be reinforced.
They need exciting stories - and non-fiction books - about the topics and themes that excite other children their age. Books with simple vocabulary and sentence structure but about crimes, ghosts, football, romance, spies, vampires, space travel, monsters, challenging life situations, and all the other things that 'ordinary' books for young people are about. Sue Purkiss reported this week on the Society of Authors' conference on books for 7-9s, the poor relations of books for older children and picture books. If they're the poor relations, books for struggling readers are the beggars outside the gates.
There are publishers producing wonderful books for this readership. The best known is Barrington Stoke, but there are others, including the tiny but excellent Ransom and mainstream publishers who have lists for this group, such as Evans. It's a struggling market, though. More than any other area of children's publishing, it's vulnerable to cuts in schools and libraries funding. Often, the parents of the readers don't buy books. They may not read themselves, or may not be able to afford books. The books are short, of course, so they don't look like good value (a problem for picture books, too). In schools and libraries, although the value of the books is recognised, it can be hard to justify spending on books that only a small proportion of the pupils may read - even though the needs of those children are great and urgent.
For the writer, books for this readership are great fun to write. It's a real challenge, a very exciting one. You have to pack a lot of plot, character development and some sophisticated themes into few, simple words. Or put a lot facts in a very easy and accessible form. I'm currently writing a series of six vampire novels for teens. Don't yawn, I know vampires have been done to death. But not, as my publisher points out, for readers who could never tackle something as long as Twilight. Where are the teen vampire novels less than ten thousand words long? Why are these kids left out of the vampire party? They want to read what their friends are reading. And the same is true for those who would rather read exciting spy stories or science fiction or adventure or crime or horror. Just because a child can't read well doesn't mean they're stupid. Books for them are not, and must not be, dumbed down. The readers probably know a good deal more than you do about a lot of subjects, will enjoy challenging ideas to think about, and things that link in with their world in unexpected ways.
These books are fun to write, but they're not easy. It can also feel as though you're 'wasting' a plot and characters that could go in a full-length novel for mainstream readers - you have a brilliant idea and you are not letting it stretch and enjoy itself. There is no chance it will become a bestseller and make lots of money. The readership may be fairly small. Why would you do it? Because it's a really enjoyable challenge as well as incredibly worthwhile. Tight writing and fast plotting, making every word work because the child has to invest a lot in reading every word - these are not easy to do, but it's very satisfying when it works. I love writing for this readership and do it a lot. It doesn't pay well - in fact, it pays very, very badly - and you don't get great Nielsen figures or fame. But you get huge satisfaction and it really sharpens your writing skills. Better still, it might make a difference to some child, somewhere, who once thought reading was for other people. You can't put a price on that.
(You can follow the progress of #thosevampires on twitter, @annerooney. My books for this readership are all on my website, mixed in with the other books but labelled hi-lo - high interest, low reading level.)